I had good reason to be nervous about ritual circumcisers. In 2004, three New York babies contracted herpes from a mohel, who, in keeping with an ultra-Orthodox Jewish tradition, used his mouth to draw blood from the wound. I had no intention of letting a mohel or anyone else for that matter put his mouth on my newborn son's genitals, but the moral of the story was clear enough: If you're going to chop off part of someone's penis without asking permission, you'd better choose your chopper with care.
The first mohel I called was an Israeli rabbi who spoke English with a thick accent. He invited me to watch him circumcise another baby. I wasn't sure what to do. I wanted to see the mohel in action, and yet I felt strange about crashing a circumcision. In the end, I decided to attend the ceremony at the Jewish Community Center, but to remain as inconspicuous as possible. I realized my mistake when the baby was brought into the room and all the invited guests turned to the door to find me lurking nervously.
Not wanting to be arrested for lurking nervously at a circumcision, I stepped out of the room and waited in the hallway. After the ceremony, the mohel and his assistant, Robin, joined me downstairs in the café.
The mohel ordered two Cokes. I did not want a Coke but the mohel would not hear of it. I asked him about his background. I was searching for signs that the mohel might be unfit for duty. The mohel said that he had trained at a hospital in Israel where he and the other mohels-in-training would do a circumcision every 45 minutes, as many as 13 in a day. When I expressed my surprise, the mohel grew serious. "My father taught me always to tell the truth in the face," he said. "Not behind the back, not under the back, but in the face."
Thirteen circumcisions in a day was impressive, and it was only the beginning. "I will show you something," the mohel said, getting up from his chair and opening his bag. He returned with a small book and pointed to a signature on the title page. "Jerry Seinfeld," he said.
I leaned over and looked at the signature. I was so impressed that it took me a second to wonder why the mohel had chosen this moment to show off his Seinfeld autograph.
"I circumcised Jerry's son," he explained. And there was more. Pride now visible on his face, the mohel pointed to another signature on the same page. "Judge Judy. I did her grandson."
It was obvious I was dealing with a world-class circumciser, but I didn't want to settle on the first mohel I met.
The next mohel I called said "mazel tov" before hanging up, then remembered that I had not yet become a father. "Sorry," he said, "habit." When I called back to set up a meeting, he said "mazel tov" again. This struck me as a bad sign. I did not want a mohel who was circumcising on autopilot. I decided to keep looking.
A website for parents led me to a female mohel, and I arranged a dinner interview. Over grilled salmon, she demonstrated her technique with a lollipop and a circumcision instrument known as a Gomco Clamp. I liked that she was not afraid to brandish her Gomco in public. When she said that performing circumcisions was her calling in life, I was moved. This was the type of devotion I had been seeking. On an impulse, I put down my fork and asked her to circumcise my son. She said she would.
And so when the big day came, I had a mohel, a baby boy, Isaac, and a location, our Brooklyn apartment. What I did not have was a wife. My wife Jennifer had decided the whole thing was just too much to bear and taken refuge in a neighbor's apartment.
Several minutes before the ceremony, Jennifer's friends managed to coax her back into our apartment. That's when she walked into our bedroom to the sight of the mohel dangling Isaac's testicles above his head.
It turned out that what Jennifer saw was a small oval-shaped sponge which, after having been dipped in a mixture of red wine and sugar water, looked astonishingly similar to our newborn son's testicles. Indeed, had thousands of people entered a contest to create a model of Isaac's scrotum, I sincerely doubt that even one would have come up with a more perfect replica.
In any case, Jennifer had seen enough. She promptly left the apartment again, and did not return until the mohel had finished her work, at which point my relatives joined hands and began jogging in circles a practice the Jewish people refer to as dancing.